high school students

The annual college rankings from US News and World Report (USNWR) were released this week in the wake of an announcement about subtle new changes to the magazine’s methodology. For better or worse, these rankings inspire a great deal of conversation about the quality of American higher education, and influence big choices made by students and their families. We’re here to break down that methodology in order to help students and families determine what to tune out, and what to turn up.

In part one of this two-part series, we take on three of the four biggest factors in USNWR’s college rankings. But before we get down to specifics, it’s important for you to begin to think broadly about what matters to you in the college selection process. Do you value inputs like faculty quality, the admitted student profile, and endowment? Or do you place a higher emphasis on outputs like graduation rate, starting salary, and graduate school admissions? And what role should the education process play in your decision?

Most parents and students will assess institutional quality through some combination of inputs, outputs, and process, as the goal of higher education is to create meaningful future opportunities through engaging and stimulating educational experiences. How you choose to weigh important factors is deeply personal for each student, and so it is highly unlikely that the weight you place on any given factor will be in line with the weighting given by USNWR. Let’s take a look at how they do it:

Student Selectivity for Fall 2012 Entering Class: 12.5 Percent

For students who value the opportunity to learn from their peers, it’s good news that an eighth of a college’s score goes to the quality of its entering students. But peel back the curtains on the category, and you’ll find that 65 percent of the grade is based on standardized test scores (ACT and SAT), while another 25 percent is based on the number of students who were in the top tenth of their high school class. (I won’t even touch the 10 percent of the category based solely on an institution’s selectivity, as though admitting fewer people somehow makes an institution better.)

Nobody doubts the value of driven, talented, and competent peers. But where are the measures of thoughtfulness? Creativity? Patience and curiosity? Empathy and care? When it comes time to apply to college, students from around the country ask that colleges look beyond their scores and grades and try to figure out who they really are. How much weight should you give to a ranking system that reduces student quality to scores and grades?

Faculty Resources for 2012-2013 Academic Year: 20 Percent

This category is broken into five sub-categories ranging from class size to student/faculty ratio. Faculty compensation pulls 35 percent of the weight in this category, an important consideration for anyone who believes that the best in any field always make the most money, but a factor that I’ve never heard a student talk about when he gets giddy about his school. Instead, students talk about the way faculty engage with them: dinners at their houses, long conversations during office hours, and a willingness to reach out and give extra help on a subject. Small classes and a low student/faculty ratio might create the conditions for these kinds of mentoring relationships, but they’re not all there is to it. Dig deeper to find out what faculty truly bring to the table.

Graduation and Retention Rates: 22.5 Percent

Both of these measures are extremely important indicators of the potential return on your investment, but take care to investigate the full range of a school’s outputs. What percentage of students is employed after graduating, and in what fields? How frequently do students enter graduate or professional schools? How satisfied are young alumni with their college experience, and would they choose it again? You’ll want to understand what students do with their degree, not merely what percentage of students earn one. And keep in mind that there are dropouts even at schools with high graduation rates. Picking the right environment for you can help ensure that you get the support you need to be successful.

Check back in tomorrow when we break down the remaining four categories, including the one that draws the most weight, and the most scrutiny.



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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.